Collected and translated by Peter Appelbaum
For somebody such as myself brought up and educated in the English-
The more I dug the more I found. The styles are many and sometimes overlap: romantic, idealistic, and super-
All authors except for Sternberg, Feuchtwanger, Toller, and Tucholsky were killed during the war. All translations are my own.
When I left home to fight for Fatherland
Against the threat of danger and deceit
You, children, happily around me ran
Rejoicing in your father’s bravery,
His uniform and other warlike clothes,
And in his newfound worth and bravery.
All hid from child-
When now your father leaves for war and death.
But later when you are mature and wise,
And when perhaps my bones far east may lie
Bleaching alone under a wooden cross –
Then dread and horror you may start to feel
And you will think about that far-
When we all said farewell for the last time.
The certainty will ease your private pain
That proud and joyful he did join the ranks
Who all fought for our Reich’s security.
And do you want to know why I went out,
Enthused and happy joining all the rest,
My life by sweetest wife and love still crowned,
While you in childhood’s blossom sweet and pure
Appeared before me in your beauteous youth?
I say to you, and listen carefully
I left you all because a German I,
No other way could I think, feel or act!
A German in each fibre of my heart.
Strong feelings as a student came to me
Of noble, precious German worth and good.
My childish heart rejoiced when I did hear
Of German victories and greatness told.
But when each sudden blow my nation struck,
It shattered me deep in my inmost soul;
It penetrated me so deep in marrow’s core
That it became my life’s experience.
So moved was I deep in my heart of hearts
Because of tragic destiny that struck
And tried to kill the noble dynasty
The kingly breed of Hohenstauffens proud,
So deeply moved was I that, yet a child,
Still tied to school desk and not yet mature
It held the grip of written fantasy.
Then came a war with German forces strong
Not only against German pride and power –
But against German peoples, German kind,
Consciously evil, devilishly conceived –
A war, not fought as knights with weapon bared,
But hunger’s ruin forcing us to yield.
With bold lies and the basest treachery
With despicable and immoral acts
They wanted to destroy our long-
Achieved by German peoples’ work and toil.
The blooming of our scientists’ research
Creations of our keen artistic Volk
The blessings of our culture most refined
The glorious and proud acts of German spirits
The sound of German poetry and bloom
Of happy lives created by hard work
The blessings of our work with brother’s hands
In company with values strong and good.
Yes, snuffed out and destroyed, removed from life
A world without our art they wished to see!
It is a war, heart beating strong in breast
With mindful thoughts and blood strong in the veins,
Proclaimed against a hellish evil beast.
And to what end? The merchants to enrich
And thieves hungry for gold to make more rich.
And then our holy anger was enflamed:
How else could I have thought and felt right then
When German nation’s brave and brightest youth,
When I too loved our holy German art?
Could outrage not then fill my deepest soul
When German essence is now so defiled
When we are blamed for all outrageous acts
When slanderous doubts of our nobility
Drag us all down in mud and dirt and filth.
Relief and not complaint rose in my soul
When fate chose me for battle’s severe test,
Vengeance to take on malice, lies, deceit
Defending German richness and fair bloom,
To fight for wife and child for my land’s sake,
Protecting them from Asiatic hordes,
That breed of tigers at our eastern gate
Who heinously with us in past has dealt.
What noble joy! Thus did I leave with hope,
A German, German borders to protect –
And yet another thing drove me to war.
I am a Jew, and faithful, true and proud
Of the tribe from whose blood I take my source.
In time of peace we oft are spoken of
With calumny about our Jewish faith.
We are called base cowards unfit to fight
And turned away from lofty goals of life,
Mean, low and selfish, gain-
They curse us cruelly – and this is the worst
The hard blow that strikes like the whip’s lash –
As foreign on the soil for which our fathers
Have paid both with their sweat and with their blood. –
My heart is now gripped with time’s urgency
One will have I, one single holy wish
That Jew and German bind themselves as one.
That we are German needs no outside proof,
The truth thereof shines clearly as the sun,
We Jews all leave for war of our own wish,
Joyful to throng around our country’s flag
To gain for ourselves – even if fate wills
That we pay with our blood – our Fatherland.
For Jewish kin have sadly called the land
In which we live Stepfatherland:
This was my last but well-
That I and all of us will prove our strength:
Our Fatherland for which we have such love
That placed us at the back unjustly, wrong
And that we fight bravely when duty calls
To strike the foe like, once in days of yore,
The Maccabees, proud scions of our tribe -
Who are our enemies in this just war,
The Judas, old notorious foe of yore
The cruel old oppressor of our race,
The enemies of culture, freedom, right,
Who are our enemies now? – One hate
Unites us, finally, with freedom’s joy
Warriors for culture, German, Jew unite
And then will bloom one common destiny:
Defeat may lead to our destruction, sure,
But victory frees, ennobles, gives us joy.
For what can we expect from our cruel foe,
That now spills Jewish blood in their own lands,
Flowing in streams, and causes grief and woe
To Jewish children, women without fault?
Therefore I left for battle, as I am.
A German Jew to fight in holy war.
Emmanuel Saul -
[Not marked as such, but probably after the etching Ritter, Tod und Teufel (1513) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-
A strong brave knight must always ride
With Death and Devil by his side.
The Devil is his lancer man
Sticking the soft parts when he can.
He walks behind; with owl-
He looks into his armoured back
The look of death is full of pain
He is the horse’s strong neck-
Who begs impertinent and old
And says to the ghost-
The knight is sitting on his steed
His visor open due to need.
The rider stares and rides and duels
With ghostly comrade that him rules
What weighs his armour down so low
What in his saddle happens so?
A righteous knight has got to ride
With Death and Devil by his side.
Where hell does stink and boils so grim
The Devil has forged arms for him
The armour which the rider wears
Is next to helmet, sword and spears
His leg is splinted all along
He follows whom he serves so long.
But now he must continuously
He is as thin as an old man
But journeys on as best he can.
The knight with pity then is fooled
Although the rider’s lance is hurled.
Hearts blood then comes all streaming out
And death does squint round him about.
He knows the tracery of iron
That rib cage struck by cruel design.
He knows a steel so hard extreme
It pulls from the Last Day’s beam.
He knows about the stroke so dire
He rides his last day with his Sire.
Walter Heymann -
Rise and awake, it is the hour!
The patrol makes the rounds
And examines each man on watch
Standing on the loamy mud-
Peering through the night,
Listening for every echo,
Up and awake for your comrades!
Hear, they snore without restful sleep
Buried into their gloomy lairs
In which the foe lives in their dreams,
So, when each man creeps out with the patrol
Only the full moon
And the waking stars
Silently greet the far-
So, now you are standing in the little forest of field guards
Where the enemy, from every fold in the earth
Squints out of the trees,
Squat, all of you, properly hid.
If you are discovered
Then – good shot!
How the turnip-
As if they are rushing en mass – against us!
No, from there – is the swarm of fire from there?
Now pay attention and sound the alarm at once.
The singing from telegraph poles
And nothing else. – but a whiplash sound
Strikes near your ear. It was but a sound
And the bullet flew past.
But ahead, where the enemy watches in the forest
You can hear the crashing of their rifles.
Quiet then, restless cool emptiness,
Close your tired lids, heavy with sleep,
Shake yourself and do not give in,
Do not go to sleep,
But think: you are all alone
On watch here;
Sleepers that only have eyes like your own
Sleep around you in the trenches.
And –halt, who goes there! – they come running
Dark men, deeply rooted in the earth,
They call the well-
Your ear also knows the brave voices,
Friend: shoot your rifle.
They are there! Soon you will be relieved!
Whomever then is on watch – for me—I bless him
May nothing worse befall him.
Walter Hermann -
(Killed during the war: no details available;no more is known about him, not even his first name.)
You have no grave, no cross … but you did die.
Maybe in some dark thicket your bones lie
Or you were sunk in swamp in deep of night,
Or Cossacks cruelly robbed you of the light.
And when it was and where and how …and why
I know not: death in forest does not cry.
You are a skull now white-
Round which the weasel lightly leaves its train.
You are the ploughed earth on which horses stand
You are the grain that once did crown the land
You are the bread the farmer once did eat
You are the strength when peace returns to greet.
Translated by Peter Appelbaum
(This is the Hebrew month preceding the High Holiday autumn season.)
A black and rainy evening
With vague feelings of fear
Alive with garish shrieking
Of shots both far and near.
What bring you, laughing soldier
To my heart’s dark command
When I, pensive and sober,
In my own grave do stand
What strange column unmoving
Appears with such dark dread?
Death, is your realm not fed?
At home with pious greeting
Loved ones the graves do search
Where are the dead now meeting?
The wind blows o’er the church
Death touches grave and heather
And sings: “This have I done.”
Perhaps from my eyes forever
Night will now hide the sun.
Translated by Peter Appelbaum
The skin dries up on our foreheads.
A worm our brains inside us shreds
The flesh in meadows rots all round
Our mouths blocked up by stones and ground
The flesh decays, the bone is dry;
We ask one question: why, oh why?
This question will not go away:
Why, why and why? Alack the day!
Our mouths are stopped with earth and dust
Our question bursts out: is this just?
The ground that covers us bursts out
We restlessly the answers doubt.
We, the earth’s seed, await in fear
The answers come, the answers near
Woe if it strikes! Hail whom it spares!
The answer’s slow but comes: who hears?
Translated by Peter Appelbaum
The man has submerged in the great army;
The army has disappeared into the earth; far away lies the sea
Lost breezes pass between home and enemy land,
They meet and fade away.
And patrols rise up from the trenches like ghosts from the grave
A helmet appears large for a moment before the night sky.
Then the whispering troop disappears in the stormy woods.
Only the wind rustles in the tree-
Patrol meets patrols and stamps like shadows past each another
And one recognizes, from a voice in the dark, his brother and like a choked cry
Whispers are heard as they pass: Wilhelm? Heinrich? Mother wrote today?.
“Greetings” Till we meet again!”
And then they disappear in different directions in the darkness
The forest paths gleam brightly lit broadly by a flare
Again sunken in the night: shots from the forward posts
Silence of the hostile world.
2 THE RELIEF
We lie snowed in the trenches like snow-
Unknowing mirrors of the days and nights that roll over us,
In the foremost trenches, cut off from the help of the world
In front of the gun barrels of the enemies who aim across the level field,
Our breasts, like our raised earth wall, only a defense
Our death cry only a signal for the army
Behind us, We are only the feelers and the nerve cord
On which the burning town in the night and the flare pistols play their song
Every whispered word, heard at the front
Every step, that hisses in the trenches before us
Until the hour of relief nears, when suddenly out of the foggy night
An unknown person stirs us, who will watch for us and continue the fight.
And we reach our comrade, whom we do not see.
Through the fog we grasp his hand and take up the rifle and start to go.
Then before we leave our post,
A bullet lies before us in the snowy clods atop the trenches edge.
Leo Sternberg -
The soldiers pray fervently, every man for himself:
God, protect me from bad luck.
Father, son and holy ghost,
Please don’t let any shells hit me,
Or those scoundrels, our enemies
Imprison or shoot me,
Don’t let me kick the bucket like a dog
For the dear Fatherland.
See, I would like to still live
Milk cows, bang girls,
And beat up that rascal, Sepp.
And get boozed up many times
Before I meet my holy end.
See, I’ll pray well and willingly
Say seven rosaries daily,
If, God, in your mercy
You kill my friends Huber or Meier
But spare me.
But if I’ve got to take it
Let me not be wounded too heavily.
Send me a light leg-
A small arm injury,
So that I return home as a hero
Who can tell many a story.
Alfred Lichtenstein -
A thousand stars are shining in the heaven
The landscape shines, and from the far-
The human marching column slowly nears.
Just once it is detached – and, lost in thought -
A young lieutenant, a page-
But finally combat wagons start to move.
The moon makes this all look particular.
And now and then the drivers shout out loud:
High on the wobbliest cartridge wagon sits
Like a small fiery toad, refinely carved
From blackest wood, his hands balled lightly closed,
His rifle on his back, sword buckled light,
A large smoking cigar in crooked mouth
Valerian drops pressed tightly to his heart –
Alfred Lichtenstein -
[Kuno was one of Lichtenstein’s comrades.)
Through grenade furrows
And filthy puddles
Freezing in a hole in the ground
Rats dart squeaking over their path
Stormy rain knocks with fingers of death
On decaying doors
From trench to trench.
Translated by Peter Appelbaum
A dung heap of rotting corpses:
Glazed eyes, bloodshot,
Brains split, guts spewed out
The air poisoned by the stink of corpses
A single awful cry of madness
Oh women of France,
Women of Germany
Regard your menfolk!
They fumble with torn hands
For the swollen bodies of their enemies,
Gestures, stiff in death, become the touch of brotherhood,
Yes they embrace each other,
Oh, horrible embrace!
I see and see and am struck dumb
Am I a beast, a murderous dog?
Ernst Toller -
On a pole, rotten and foul
Squats the conscience of nations,
Three childrens’ bones dance around the pole
Broken from a young mother’s body.
A sheep bleats the rhythm bäh bäh.
Ernst Toller -
There the large Pickelhaube lies
In a black, dark hole in the earth.
It rests quietly…But look, I believe
That it is still moving.
A District President displays his large teeth
“Must I recite mocking poetry at the grave?
De mortuis nil nisi bene! “
As it happened.
Do not forget them: the chevaliers,
The officers who sat on their wealth at home
The young one is playing the zither of complaint –
All of them beasts.
Full of piety? Yes, full of cakes.
He lies on well-
We must first of all curse the old
And then look for good new ones to curse
Until he has decomposed.
Translated by Peter Appelbaum
Heads off for prayer!
Oh God, our dirty and muddied old bones
Have crept forth once more from the trench’s chalky stones.
We appear before you to pray and do not remain silent.
And ask you, Oh God:
Why have we given our heart’s blood away?
While the Kaiser’s six sons all living do stay.
We once believed….Oh how stupid we were…!
They made us all drunk….
One man screamed in his hospital bed for six months,
Before dry food and staff doctors finished him off.
Another became blind and took opium secretly.
Three of us between us have only one arm…
Faith, life, war and everything else we have lost
It was they, the powers, who tossed us into it
Like film gladiators.
We had the best audience,
But it didn’t die with us.
If you really are there as we daily do learn
Descend from starred heaven and show your concern!
Come down to us mortals or send us your son!
Tear the flags down, the orders, the decoration!
Announce to the countries of the earth how we have suffered;
How hunger. lice, shrapnel and lies our bodies have covered!
Chaplains have carried us to our graves in your name.
Declare they have lied! Is it us that you blame?
Chase us back to our graves, but answer us clear!
We kneel before You as best we can –but please lend us your ear!
If our dying has not been completely without point,
Do not anoint us with another year like 1914!
Tell the people and drive them to desert!
A battalion of corpses looks to you for comfort.
All that remains for us is to come before you and pray!
Kurt Tucholsky -
Most of the German Jewish poetry of the First World War found on this page has never previously been seen translated into English. Only Alfred Lichtenstein is well-
These poems give a fascinating insight into the German and Jewish experience of the First World War.
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